UMD-Denver series commands NCHC spotlight

John Gilbert

 

Speedy UMD captain Karson Kuhlman broke around the MSU-Mankato defense but couldn’t beat goaltender Con nor LaCouvee. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Speedy UMD captain Karson Kuhlman broke around the MSU-Mankato defense but couldn’t beat goaltender Con nor LaCouvee. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Winger Parker Mackay’s timely backcheck reached the puck to help out UMD goalie Hunter Shepard, who beat MSU-Mankato 3-1. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Winger Parker Mackay’s timely backcheck reached the puck to help out UMD goalie Hunter Shepard, who beat MSU-Mankato 3-1. Photo credit: John Gilbert

The difference between Division I college hockey ratings and Division I NCAA football ratings is that the hockey guys don’t take themselves so seriously that they get all bound up by where a group of press box experts suggests their status before Christmastime. In football, the manipulations and political game-playing might be more exciting than most of the games on the nation’s fields.

UMD’s hockey team, for example, is ranked No. 16, while Denver is No. 1. They happened to come together in the NCAA tournament championship game last April, with Denver winning 3-2. And they also happen to be playing an enormous rematch of a series this weekend at AMSOIL Arena.
Everyone made Denver the favorite to repeat as No. 1, repeat as NCHC champion, and even repeat as NCAA champ this season, and for the most part the Pioneers have played up to that lofty level. However, the Pioneers also best be advised that UMD, which lost heavily to graduation and early pro signings, faced a major rebuilding job this fall, and certainly didn’t need to also have their ranks depleted with an outbreak of injuries that prevented some of their top guns from playing for most of a month.

Those injured assets are mostly back in the lineup now. Hunter Shepard has taken charge in goal, the youthful defense continues to make sophomore Nick Wolff appear to be the team’s grizzled veteran on defense, and he has taken on the responsibility of being the leader with aggressive confidence. Up front, the injuries thinned out the ranks for a few weeks, undoubtedly contributing to splits of series against Western Michigan and Miami of Ohio. Those teams are strong and very difficult to play against, but getting injured wingers Nick Swaney and Joey Anderson back after missing three weekends made the Bulldogs a far more formidible foe against Minnesota State-Mankato last Saturday.

It was a one-game weekend, with the teams meeting at midweek later in the season in Mankato to complete the series. The game also was a perfect measuring stick for the NCHC, WCHA and Big Ten —  the three fragmented leagues that all used to be under the WCHA umbrella. Mankato leads the WCHA and has an impressive team, coming to AMSOIL and outshooting UMD 33-26. But UMD prevailed 3-1 in a swift and entertaining battle.

Since the Bulldogs had earlier problems with Bemidji State and Michigan Tech from the WCHA, they needed to establish certain things against theWCHA-leading Mavericks. Shepard, in goal, made 32 saves, beaten only by Ian Scheid in the second period, when he skated from the top of the right circle across the slot and scored with a backhander to bring Mankato to within 2-1.

The Bulldogs had gained a 2-0 lead in the first period. Swaney, a freshman just back after missing six games, carried on a rush up the right side, letting Mankato goaltender Connor LaCouvee assume he was going to pass across the slot before firing a bullet into the upper short-side corner. Peter Kriegergot an assist from Joey Anderson and scored wth 11 seconds remaining in the opening period to make it 2-0. The value of getting Swaney and Joey Anderson back was not only underscored by their scoring contributions, but their presence also strengthened the Bulldogs down through all four lines.

With 1:27 left in the third period of a tight, 2-1 duel, freshman defenseman Scott Perunovich bolted up the middle and passed to captain Karson Kuhlman, who shot from the right wing. Big Riley Tufte came roaring in on goal and knocked in the rebound on a bang-bang play for the clinching 3-1 goal.
So the get-acquainted portion of UMD’s schedule is over, and the Bulldogs look ready to make an upward move in the NCHC. Denver, however, is an imposing challenge. The Pioneers were ranked No. 1 and cruising when Western Michigan rallied from behind both nights for a shocking sweep. Denver bounced back to sweep St. Cloud State, which had displaced the Pioneers as the No. 1 ranked team.

This weekend is one of the biggest of the season for UMD, and the series shares the spotlight with the battle between Western Michigan at North Dakota.

The Big Ten — remember them? — also has a huge series, with Wisconsin’s rejuvenated Badgers invading Mariucci Arena to face the Golden Gophers in a series with second place in the Big Ten on the line. Minnesota has just finished four tough league games, blowing a 3-0 lead and losing in overtime at Michigan, followed by blowing a 4-0 lead in a 6-6 tie, then they went to South Bend to face Notre Dame. A lot of Big Ten followers boasted that the Big Ten would be much improved by adding Notre Dame, and my response was that yes, it would help, as long as Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and others didn’t mind if Notre Dame won the league title for several years in a row!

Notre Dame beat Minnesota 1-0 and 5-2 for a sweep, meaning Minnesota is taking on Wisconsin with hopes of breaking an 0-3-1 stretch, and the rivalry could relieve those who are shocked by the half-full crowds the Gophers — and Big Ten — have been drawing to Mariucci.

Football

Meanwhile, the ratings in football take on a life-and-death undercurrent because the selection committee will make its final rating determinations after this weekend, and the top four teams will advance to the prestigious tournament to decide a national champion.
My opinion of the rating system is poisoned by the shameless promotion ESPN and sheep-like followers ascribe to the Southeast Conference. Even when the SEC proved to be decidedly mediocre this year, it could rely on everybody’s No. 1 pick — Alabama. But last Saturday, Alabama fell to Auburn, 26-14. 
The barrage of  ESPN and almost-coordinated national media that of the five major conferences, the SEC and the ACC were the strongest, with the Big Ten just OK, the Big 12 not very good, and the PAC-12 decidedly weak. Every time ESPN mentioned a PAC-12 team, they would preface it by saying how shackled Southern Cal, or Washington, or Stanford was by its “weak schedule.”

Let me point out that if the committee realized the PAC-12 was so strong no team could run through it undefeated, they might rank Southern Cal, Stanford, Washington and Washington State all much higher. As it is, the politicking has left no PAC-12 team among the top 10. Southern Cal, Washington and Stanford are all ranked among the top 15, with USC 11th, Washington 13th and Stanford 14th.

The regular-season voters, and the NCAA committee members, are all seeking information on every football team they can find, which means they depend on the hyperbole from ESPN and are unduly influenced by it. The whole scheme worked in the Big Ten, too, where the committee grudgingly gave credit to Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State, but insulted Wisconsin all through the season until finally raising the unbeaten Badgers to an elite position.

But while some teams in some leagues might have dropped eight or 10 places with a loss, Alabama dropped only from first to fifth in this week’s ratings. That’s the perfect set-up. The top four right now are: 1. Clemson 11-1, 2. Oklahoma 11-1, 3. Wisconsin 12-0, and 4. Auburn 10-2, with Alabama No. 5. The committee overlooked that the loss marring Clemson’s 11-1 record was to Syracuse. Syracuse! 

And Alabama’s sheer reputation leaves the Crimson Tide No. 5, giving credence to bombarding such foes as Fresno State, Colorado State, Vanderbilt (59-0), Mississippi (66-3), and Mercer (56-0). Being No. 5 is perfect for the Promote-Alabama gang, because this is the week that conference playoffs occur.

Southern Cal plays Stanford in the PAC-12 playoff on Friday night; on Saturday, Wisconsin risks its 12-0 record against Ohio State in the Big Ten divisional playoff; Auburn plays Georgia in the SEC divisional playoff; Clemson faces Miami in the ACC playoff; and Oklahoma plays Texas Christian in the Big 12. All of those have implications for the NCAA playoffs, which will be announced after this weekend.

 By being dropped only to fifth, however, Alabama lurks. If Oklahoma loses to TCU, if Wisconsin loses to Ohio State, if Clemson loses to Miami, or ifAuburn loses to Georgia, the rankings make it look obvious that Alabama would move into the top four. Actually, all four top teams could lose this weekend, which undoubtedly would allow idle Alabama to move all the way back to No. 1, as though last weekend’s loss didn’t matter.